“He killed him! On the television!”
The speaker was my grandmother. The date was Nov. 24, 1963. Jack Ruby had just shot and killed Lee Harvey Oswald on live TV. I arrived at Nana’s house to find her in this fury. I was 6 years old.
Watching the horrific TV replays with Nana there was no way, of course, that I would know that 30 years later I would meet the police detective in the light-colored Resistol who was handcuffed to Oswald at the time of the televised murder.
But that’s what happened. On the 30th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Southern Methodist University held a forum that included retired Dallas police Detective Jim Leavelle and other eyewitnesses. Afterward, outside on the lawn, I introduced myself to Leavelle (pronounced luh-VELL) and told him how much I, as a lover of American history, appreciated hearing his eyewitness account.
He gave me his business card.
Star of the show
A dozen years later, I pulled out that card and called Leavelle. I explained that I was hosting more than 100 newspaper columnists at a conference at the Gaylord Texan hotel in Grapevine, and I planned a bus trip to the Sixth Floor Museum. Would he be my star speaker?
“The Gaylord Texan, huh?” he said.
He said he always wanted to see what the big hotel was like.
Yes, he said, he’d speak to my colleagues, but in return he and his wife, Taimi, would like to attend the events at my three-day conference and also stay overnight at the hotel.
For that 2005 conference, I hosted journalism stars from across the nation to teach the many classes. For fun, I brought in Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders, columnist-turned-Dallas-Mayor Laura Miller and a mechanical bull. I even staged a cowboy skit in the atrium of the massive hotel.
But at the Dallas museum, Leavelle, wearing a light-colored cowboy hat, similar to the one he wore that fateful day, outshined them all as he masterfully told his story.
He had quite the story. Jim was a young sailor at Pearl Harbor on the day of the 1941 attack. He was also a lead investigator in the deaths of President Kennedy and his alleged shooter, Oswald.
Jim went well over his allotted time to speak. But I wasn’t about to quiet him. My job was to give these columnists something to write about.
Summing up, he teased us, “Sometimes working with journalists is a real pain in the posterior. But I really got excited because I’ve never been to the Gaylord before.”
In the days that followed, as their stories appeared, my colleagues bragged to their readers that they met a man of history.
“History came to life,” one wrote.
Another columnist praised Jim “as a monument of cool and class” who told his story “with patience, consistency and dignity.”
“Leavelle’s memories are crisp and provocative,” the writer added.
They quoted him fatefully telling Oswald moments before he was shot, “Lee, if anyone shoots at you, I hope they’re as good a shot as you are.”
They reported his comments to Jack Ruby: “You didn’t do us any favors shooting Oswald. He [Ruby] said, ‘I just wanted to be a hero.’”
After the conference, I got an email from Jim. First, the old-school detective apologized because “instead of sending you a formal letter like I should I will do it the easy way and send you an email.”
He wrote, “I really enjoyed the conference and meeting all the people. ... I have talked to many people in the last 40 odd years, but none that I enjoyed more than this group.”
Pose for pictures
We stayed in touch.
Jim liked to talk, especially after his wife of 73 years, Taimi, passed away.
“I wake up at night and look over to see if she’s still there,” he once told me. “Sometimes I see something interesting on TV and say, ‘Did you see that?’ and then look up and remember she’s not there.”
I invited him to the newsroom. That day, I picked him up at his Garland apartment and drove to the original El Fenix restaurant — his choice — for lunch. Then we visited The Dallas Morning News so we could make a video and take updated photos.
His appearance set off a wave of excitement. Several reporters asked if they could pose with him for a photo. Jim always said yes.
Responsibility to history
Jim died last month at age 99. His passing was reported around the world.
The reason I admired Jim so much is because he knew he had a responsibility to history, and he fulfilled it. He told his story thousands of times.
“Here’s the way I looked at it,” he once told me. “It started with hundreds of schools asking for interviews. I felt like it was my duty more or less to talk to them. They were asking me because they were interested.
“If I could tell them anything that would help them understand what had happened. I wanted to do that because there were so many things that were stretched completely out of imagination.
“It was a pretty simple deal,” he continued. “They waylaid the president and shot him. But people can’t have that. It’s got to be some conspiracy. It can’t be a simple murder by someone who had little problems.
“He wanted to be a hero, and he wanted people to see him walking down the street and go, ‘There goes Mr. Oswald there.’”
Jim Leavelle was a lovely man, street-smart, caring and generous. He was a gentleman who was quick to make friends. He knew his place as a treasure of living history.
Sad to know that now he’s just history. Rest in peace, good friend.